Blazers GM Neil Olshey claims LaMarcus Aldridge 'happy' in Portland despite rumors
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Publicly, LaMarcus Aldridge has yet to say anything that could be construed as an immediate desire to part with the Trail Blazers, the only NBA team that he has known.
That's remained true throughout the summer months, as general manager Neil Olshey set about rebuilding a rotation around his All-Star power forward and as multiple reports indicated that Aldridge, who can become a free agent in 2015, has privately communicated some level of dissatisfaction to management. Aldridge's highest-profile offseason statement came when he denied that he had gone to management to demand a trade. Otherwise, as has been his custom, Aldridge has enjoyed a quiet summer.
From that relative silence, a different story has emerged. One report indicated that Aldridge "wants out" of Portland because he doesn't like the city. Another suggested that he wanted to see substantial improvements to the Blazers' roster, and that the Bulls and Mavericks were on his wish list. Yet another indicated that Aldridge's representatives had broached possible trade scenarios with Olshey during the Las Vegas Summer League, but that a deal wasn't seen as imminent.
Olshey declared Thursday that his summer work was "done," and that the fruits of his labors -- No. 10 pick CJ McCollum, center Robin Lopez, power forward Thomas Robinson, point guard Mo Williams and small forward Dorell Wright -- are evidence to Aldridge that the Blazers are serious about putting a winning product on the floor after back-to-back lottery trips.
"I think what LaMarcus sees now ... [is that] there is a plan," Olshey told Portland's KATU on Thursday after a news conference introducing the newly signed Williams. "And we're executing the plan and we're going to stay disciplined and stay diligent about getting there as quickly as possible without jeopardizing the long-term health of the franchise."
Olshey, entering his second season with the team, then brushed off what's blossomed into roughly six weeks' worth of speculation around the 28-year-old Aldridge, the No. 2 pick in 2006 and the longest-tenured Blazer.
"You [media] guys have known [Aldridge] longer than I have," Olshey continued. "If he had asked to be traded, he would have told people that he asked to be traded. He never asked to be traded. ... [Rumors] are part of the business. LaMarcus understands it. He ignores it. If [Aldridge requesting a trade] was the case, we'd be dealing with it. It's not. He's happy."
"Happy" isn't the word to describe Aldridge's appearance during his April exit interview. Coming off a 33-win season that ended with a 13-game losing streak, Aldridge looked and sounded disappointed and a bit skeptical, even suggesting that it might be two years before the Blazers would be in a position to be taken seriously as a playoff threat.
"This year was a down year," Aldridge told reporters. "I think it was better than what people thought it would be, [but] it ended bad. I think if we add one or two pieces this summer and we have one OK season, I feel like that following season we should be good, really good."
Of course, the "following season" he spoke of is 2014-15, the last year of his contract, leaving the clock ticking for Portland, which has watched as other smaller markets (Orlando, New Orleans, Utah, etc.) have bid goodbye to franchise players in recent years.
Somewhat incredibly, 12 of the 15 players set to be on Portland's opening-night roster have been added since June 2012. Only one player, Nicolas Batum, was with the Blazers when Aldridge signed a five-year, $65 million extension of his rookie contract in October 2009. Since then, Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, Jamal Crawford, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster, J.J. Hickson and Jerryd Bayless are among the players who have come and gone, with no playoff-series victories to show for it.
"I've been through so many phases," Aldridge said in April. "I think just getting into the playoffs isn't good. I've done that. I think one year of maybe, barely getting in or not getting in, and that next year we should be able to really be serious about it."
Those comments made it seem as if Aldridge was checking his watch, wondering when the Blazers would get busy assembling a real team around him. Who could blame him? He's won six playoff games in his seven years, and Portland's 33 victories in 2012-13 marked the franchise's worst record since his rookie season. The Blazers' bench was notoriously hapless, and guard Damian Lillard has subtly nudged into the "face of the franchise" role. Of course, the 23-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year has far more time for patience than does Aldridge; in the days before July 1, Aldridge told The Oregonian that he was "looking forward to who we sign in free agency to make us better," a statement that read like a light application of pressure.
"I think last year was a tough year for everybody," Olshey said Thursday. "Portland is not a market that accepts losing. We'd tried not to rebuild, but we always tried to be somewhat judicious in terms of how much future flexibility we gave away."
That strategy -- which involved punting the 2012 offseason to preserve salary-cap space that eventually facilitated trades for Lopez and Robinson and the signing of Wright -- made sense for a new GM, a new coach (Terry Stotts) and just about everyone on a young roster, except Aldridge. He responded by delivering his second straight All-Star campaign, averaging 21.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, but his efficiency dipped as he spent more time outside the paint on offense, and he appeared to detach at times when the Blazers fell out of contention for the playoffs down the stretch. It was a wasted year of his prime.
The trick for Olshey now is to sell Aldridge on the potential of his remade roster, which lacks star-caliber additions but does boast improved depth and proven veterans. With no real alternative, and with no public comments of substance to respond to, Olshey continues to preach patience, confident in his recent moves and in the knowledge that Portland's trade leverage won't start taking a significant hit until next summer.
"One thing we have to remember: LaMarcus is only ," Olshey told KATU. "He's been here a long time, but he's a young player in our league, in terms of how long his career is going to be. It will all work out really well in the end as long as we all stay on the same path."
Even with the upgrades, Portland pencils in as no better than seventh in the Western Conference, meaning that Aldridge's "two years away" assessment is likely still intact. Sometime, whether next summer or later, the possibility of a tipping point looms, a moment when Aldridge decides that the "same path" has run its course and that he should begin proactively seeking greener grass elsewhere.
As player and management enter the NBA calendar's deadest time, that hypothetical, and all the rumors that will surely precede it, should enjoy a brief reprieve.